Alice Babette Toklas was born and raised in California. In 1907 she moved to Paris, where she lived with Gertrude Stein, the American writer and art collector, and later to the Bugey, a region in south-eastern France famous for its gastronomy. She and Gertrude Stein worked as volunteers for the American Fund for French Wounded during the First World War and, although both were Jewish, they remained in Nazi-occupied France throughout the Second World War. In addition to keeping one of the most celebrated tables of the twentieth century, Alice B. Toklas also worked as a translator, and both her memoirs and her correspondence were published to great acclaim. The following is an extract from the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, on the tradition of french cuisine…
This week’s free recipe comes from Roman Cookery, Mark Grant’s classic work on the cuisine of ancient Rome. Roman Cookery unveils one of Europe’s last great culinary secrets: the food eaten by the ordinary people of ancient Rome. Based on olive oil, fish and fresh vegetables, their cuisine was the origin of the Mediterranean diet as we know it today and, in particular, of classic Italian cooking.
I met Chitrita Banerji the week before Thanksgiving at her Cambridge home, where we shared a pot of fine tea and she plied me with homemade Bengali snacks—sandesh, the milk sweet so popular in Banerji’s native Kolkata, and postor bora, fried croquettes made out of white poppy seeds and rice flour. The bricked-in alleys and mews outside were deserted from the piercing cold and it was a delight to speak with Banerji about everything from Satyajit Ray (whose Feluda stories she has translated) to the history of chhana, the milk solids that famously form the basis of a wide variety of Bengali sweets (sandesh included).
Continue reading “The Hour of The Goddess: An Interview With Chitrita Banerji”
This week’s free recipe is taken from Edouard de Pomiane’s Cooking with Pomiane. A highly-respected scientist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris as well as a much-loved radio chef, Pomiane was once described by Raymond Blanc as “my hero.”
—Edouard de Pomiane Continue reading “A delightful winter recipe from one of France’s greatest chefs”
In October of last year, Chitrita Banerji gave a talk on Bengali cuisine at an event held by the Culinary Historians of Boston. A transcript of the talk appeared in their newsletter and they have kindly allowed us to reproduce the text here.
From this week we will be offering a free weekly recipe to our blog readers. Our first offering is this warming winter recipe from Mark Grant’s Roman Cookery.
Over the next few weeks we will be publishing interviews with some of our fantastic authors. First up is Chitrita Banerji — novelist, translator, and one of the very few Indian food historians in the world. We asked her about her book, Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals and the changing reception of Bengali cooking in the West.
You grew up in Calcutta but also spent many years in Bangladesh. How does Bengali cuisine differ between what used to be West and East Bengal?
The Muslim influence is very strong in the cooking of modern Bangladesh. That is evident in the preponderance of meat items in both daily meals and festive menus. Vegetables are accorded a distinctly secondary place and hardly appear in the meals served at weddings or during big religious festivals. The use of onions is ubiquitous, almost as if it were salt. Not surprisingly, there is far greater variety in the preparation of meat dishes than in West Bengal.
The Hindus of East Bengal (many of whom eventually migrated to West Bengal) are noted for the diversity of their fish preparations. Their cooking is also marked by a greater use of spices and oil. While the culinary culture of West Bengal also includes many fish dishes (as well as meat) the use of spices is more moderate. There is a far greater range of vegetable dishes here, probably a lingering influence of the vegetarianism promoted by the sixteenth-century Hindu reformer of the Vaishnav sect, Sri Chaitanya. The addition of small quantities of sugar in savoury dishes is also a characteristic of West Bengali cooking. However, many of these distinctions are ebbing, given the increasing tendency of eating out, preference for meat, and interest in the cuisines of other parts of the world.
You have been settled in the United States since the early 90s. How has American interest in Bengali cooking changed over the years and what has the role of Indian emigrants to the United States been in that
Bengali cooking is still largely unknown in the United States. There are Indian restaurants that mostly serve northern Indian food, sometimes adding a few items from southern India (such as dosa) or items from the coastal cuisines of Goa or Kerala or Mangalore. That is what the American consumers are familiar with. The few restaurateurs who have tried to specialise in serving Bengali food have not succeeded. This is a wide open field, awaiting a committed, knowledgeable entrepreneur.
Many people in the United States and the UK will know Bengali cooking largely through restaurant food. What do you think they may find surprising about Bengali home cooking?
Although Bengali cooking is really not known in the United States the situation is different in the UK, because of the greater number of Bengalis living there. Even so, I don’t think too many people are aware of the range and nuance of authentic Bengali food. The good thing is that now some really enterprising Bengalis are opening small-scale, home-based restaurants to serve traditional Bengali food. In Bengal, we think of “bhat-machher jhol” (rice and fish stew) or “dal-bhat-aloobhatey” (rice, dal, and mashed potatoes seasoned with mustard oil and chopped green chilis) as quintessential Bengali meals–simple, yet exquisite. You hardly ever see that outside of Bengal. New restaurants like Calcutta Streets in London are attempting to serve such items and, from what I hear, their customers are both surprised and delighted. I hope more of them come up and people begin to realise that chicken tikka masala is not necessarily an accurate representation of the vast variety of India’s regional cuisines.
Are there any common misconceptions about Bengali cuisine that you feel need challenging?
Once people in Western countries recognise what Bengali cuisine is, it would be important not to conflate the cooking styles of the two Bengals–Bangladesh and West Bengal. I would also like to stress that the notion of any and every Indian food being heavy on spices and chilis is an erroneous one. Many Bengali dishes are very mild and their taste depends on the flavour imparted by a selection of whole spices rather than heavy-duty ground masala or a combination of onions and garlic and tomato.
If you had to choose just one recipe to recommend from your book which would you choose and why?
Although Bengalis, by and large, are not vegetarians, the one recipe I would like people to try from my book is a vegetarian one—Chholar Dal (in the chapter on Early and Late Autumn). It is absolutely delicious. The taste is complex and the fragrance of garam masala permeates every mouthful. It is substantial; you can almost make a filling meal out of this dal served with some rice or paratha or luchi (Bengali fried bread). The addition of fried coconut chips to the dal adds both texture and nutrition. And given the current trends towards vegetarianism and veganism, this is a recipe that anyone can try!
Find out more about Chitrita’s book here.